Friday 31 August 2012

A Proprietary Interest

To Name Is To Own: Now known as Trotter's Creek this little river in North Otago was originally called Te Awakakokomuka. What became of the customary rights attached to the Maori users of this waterway after its name was changed? 
TROTTER’S CREEK tumbles out of the Horse Range, chuckles through Trotter’s Gorge, and empties itself into the Pacific Ocean under the looming cliffs of the Moeraki peninsula at Katiki Beach. Along the way the little river runs (in the remarkably poetic language of an Otago Regional Council pamphlet) “with large slow, deep pools combined with shallow riffles.”
I would be lying if I said that on the rare occasions I drive over and alongside Trotter’s Creek I do not feel a proprietary tug. The coast of North Otago is and will always be my turangawaewae – my place to stand – and the geographical features that bear my family’s name only reinforce this sense of belonging. It’s where I was born. It’s where I hope to be buried.
But is Trotter’s Creek really Trotter’s creek? Can a family – or an individual – really lay claim to the water that falls from the sky, or the riverbeds over which it flows back to the sea? My family took possession of the land through which Trotter’s Creek flows in 1851. As the years passed, the name it bore before their arrival, Te Awakakokomuka, gradually fell into disuse. What cannot be disputed, however, is that the people who lived along the North Otago coast before the Magnet dropped anchor at Waikouaiti in 1840, also knew those “slow, deep pools” and “shallow riffles”. Wading between the Koromiko bushes, bearing home the river’s bounty, they, too, would have felt a proprietary tug.
A thousand miles to the north and thirty-eight days before my great-great-great-grandfather, William Sinclair Trotter, was rowed ashore from the Magnet, Captain William Hobson of the Royal Navy, acting on behalf of England’s Queen, Victoria, had promised the Maori tribes of New Zealand: “the full, exclusive and undisturbed possession of the Lands and Estates, Forests, Fisheries, and other properties which they may collectively or individually possess, so long as it is their wish and desire to retain the same in their possession”.
William Sinclair Trotter: Lands and estates, forests and fisheries of his own.
I doubt if William cared very much what promises Captain Hobson had made in the Bay of Islands. Waitangi was a long way from Waikouaiti, where the population of the local tribes had been thinned by war and disease, death and dispossession. In Caithness, in Scotland’s far north, he had helped the local squire, Sir John Sinclair, instruct his tenants in the husbandry of the hardy Cheviot sheep that William's father, Alexander, had driven up from the Scottish borders. He planned to turn these shepherding skills to his own advantage in this new country. Here he would carve out lands and estates, forests and fisheries of his own.
We call it “property” and fence it ‘round, not only with No.8 wire, but also with laws, covenants, easements and abstraction rights. This is “ours” we say, and all those things that we cannot fence-in or pin-down – like the sunlight and the wind, the rivers and the waves – we declare common property. But the products we make from the commons: grass, milk, electrical energy; they remain ours to buy and sell.
We have forgotten that Trotter’s Creek was once Te Awakakokomuka. Our laws, covenants, easements and abstractions have little to say about the customary rights attached to its waters in the years before it ran through the “property” of my hardy forebears. Before the Magnet’s anchor dropped, Te Awakakokomuka was something else, not “property” exactly, but something very close. The tangata whenua who paddled canoes along its banks; who had names for each of its “slow, deep pools” and “shallow riffles”; who snared the birds that flitted among the koromiko bushes lining its banks and trapped the eels which lurked beneath them; they had a stake in Te Awakakokomuka.
The difference between a little creek in North Otago and Waikato’s mighty river is really only a matter of scale. The Waitangi Tribunal recommends these long-neglected questions concerning water be answered – definitively. Proprietary “tugs” are transitory. Proprietary “interests” may prove more enduring.
This essay was originally published in The Dominion Post, The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 31 August 2012.

Thursday 30 August 2012

More "West Wing" Than Left-Wing

Magical Thinking: So compelling was Aaron Sorkin's script for the hit TV series The West Wing that it was easy to forget that "President" Jed Bartlett was a right-wing "New Democrat" in the mould of Bill Clinton. Many Labour and Alliance staffers (some of them now MPs) were won over by Sorkin's hard-headed 1999 definitions of feasible politics. Thirteen years after the series first aired, and in spite of the Global Financial Crisis comprehensively discrediting "Clintonomics", they remain more West Wing than left-wing.
THE SAME YEAR New Zealanders elected the Labour-Alliance Government, 1999, NBC launched Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing. The fast-moving, fast-talking television drama series soon became compulsory viewing for Labour and Alliance staffers. Sorkin’s intelligent, razor-sharp dialogue revealed a world of politics very different from that portrayed by the cynical members of the Press Gallery. “President” Jed Bartlett’s staffers offered much, much more than the usual smarts and wisecracks. What transformed the day-to-day activities of characters like Josh Lyman, “Ceejay” Cregg, Sam Seaborn and Toby Ziegler into such compelling television was that they were motivated by real and passionately articulated principles. Sorkin had done the seemingly impossible, he had made back-room politics sexy.
The model for The West Wing was, of course, the Clinton White House. As the first “Baby Boomer” President, Clinton brought a looser (as it turned out a much looser) and more informal style to the administrative warren which gave Sorkin’s series its name. The fictional Bartlett (played superbly by Martin Sheen) may have hailed from straight-laced New Hampshire (a far cry from Clinton’s sleazy Arkansas) but viewers warmed to the younger characters who were as “cool” as they were competent. Characters who commented on blogs and confronted protesters – not with billy-clubs and tear gas, but with weapons fashioned out of (shock, horror) facts and figures. These were people who could command arguments.
But among all the “walk and talk” tracking shots and fast-talking riffs on everything from Middle Eastern politics to stem cell research, it was easy to miss the underlying political identity of the “Bartlett Administration”. This was not a collection of New Deal Democrats (except, maybe, for Toby Ziegler). President Josiah ‘Jed’ Bartlett was a Nobel Laureate in Economics – neoliberal economics. Sorkin’s politics were and are the “liberal” politics of the so-called “New Democrats” and their “moderate” Democratic Leadership Council. In short, Sorkin was channelling the Clintons’ politics: Bill’s and Hillary’s.
It’s the politics that gave the world NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement) and declared “the era of big government” to be “over”. The politics that put an end to “welfare as we have known it”. Sorkin's Bartlett Administration is a paean to the virtues of Anthony Gidden’s “Third Way” – presented to the world by a master screenwriter whose persuasive powers not even Tony Blair’s master manipulator, Alastair Campbell, could equal. There was a darker side too. On matters of “National Security”, Bartlett’s chief-of-staff, Leo McGarry, was as hard-line as Sorkin could imagine: an avenging American Eagle in a White House briefing-room already bristling with hawks.
Such were the role models that Labour’s and Alliance’s young staffers attempted to emulate. And Sorkin’s pithy justifications for everything from fiscal responsibility to free-trade were to leave a deep impression. When the young men and women who filled the offices around Helen Clark and Jim Anderton (Grant Robertson, Jacinda Ardern, Chris Hipkins, John and Josie Pagani) recall the exemplars of “modern social democracy” do they think only of Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and Gerhard Schroeder, or are Jed Bartlett, Josh Lyman and “Ceejay” Gregg also in their minds?
That The West Wing was able to present itself as a progressive drama was only because the Right (especially in the USA) had become so utterly bereft of anything even remotely resembling principle. That, and a long economic boom which appeared to confirm everything its neoliberal architects preached and predicted. Helen Clark and her Finance Minister, Dr Michael Cullen, floated on these economic updrafts for nearly nine years: long enough for those who worked on their staffs to become convinced that while the “reforms” of the fourth Labour government may have been poorly sequenced, and much too brutally imposed, they were, in the context of their time, the right thing to do.
Today, the grim legacy of the magical political and economic thinking that Aaron Sorkin so brilliantly gave voice to in The West Wing lies all around us. The Third Way we bought from Clinton and Blair, Clark and Cullen turned out to be a pup. The Fed’s credit-fuelled boom turned to bust. The middle class maxed-out its credit cards. The working-class fell off a cliff. Social inequality spreads through the body-politic like a deadly, metastasizing cancer. Only the rich are smiling.
Sorkin, himself, has recognised the shift. His new television series, The Newsroom, lays bare the moral and material legacies bequeathed to America by the political-economy of his West Wing characters. Tellingly, the smart, sassy and principled heroes of this, Sorkin’s latest paean to the faltering American dream, are no longer politicians – they’re journalists.
Here in New Zealand, however, the young staffers of 1999 have become the middle-aged politicians and senior advisers of 2012. And although their waistlines have widened, the ideological path followed by these ageing West Wing fans remains as straight and narrow as a Jed Bartlett budget. Their understanding of the electorate is still rooted in the expert analyses of poll data and focus groups. (Sorkin’s satire was never sharper than when he made Joey Lucas, Jed Bartlett’s hot-shot pollster, deaf). Worst of all, the economic and social arguments these unreconstructed "utopian realists" continue to hurl against their critics (both Right and Left) all come from the era of dot-com bubbles and sub-prime mortgages.
Arguments that sound more West Wing than left-wing.
This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.

Tuesday 28 August 2012

Our Diminishing Capacity For Empathy

 A Failure Of Empathy: The casual cruelty of Barbara Sumner-Burstyn's Facebook posting about the death of Lance Corporal Jacinda Baker offered swift corroboration of Dr Bruce Perry's claim that social media are diminishing our capacity for empathy.
ARE SOCIAL MEDIA making us crueller? Dr Bruce Perry, an American neuroscientist currently touring New Zealand, argues that the explosive growth of communications technology is diminishing our capacity for empathy. By undermining face-to-face relationships and weakening the intimate and ethical bonds that hold communities together, claims Dr Perry, social media are changing the way our brains work.
A challenging thesis, but Dr Perry’s disturbing ideas received almost instant corroboration. In an extraordinary outburst on Facebook, the New Zealand film-maker, Barbara Sumner-Burstyn, delivered the following, scathing, ‘testimonial’ to Lance Corporal Jacinda Baker, the young New Zealand soldier killed in action in Afghanistan on 19 August:
“Oh, so fallen soldier Jacinda Baker liked boxing and baking – did they forget she also liked invading countries we are not at war with, killing innocent people and had no moral compass. She 100 per cent does not deserve our respect for her flawed choices. We are not at war. We are helping America invade another country for their oil. No more than that.”
It is difficult to know where to begin with this thoroughly obnoxious piece of writing. Perhaps with Ms Sumner-Burstyn’s simple errors of fact.
Lance Corporal Baker did not invade Afghanistan, she was posted there as a serving member of the New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) which was in Afghanistan at the behest of the New Zealand Government, which had agreed to supply the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) with a Provincial Reconstruction Team in Bamiyan province. The ISAF is in Afghanistan by virtue of a UN Security Council resolution authorising UN member states to aid the creation of an effective and democratic Afghan government.
Lance Corporal Baker, far from “killing innocent people” was a medic – duty bound to assist all those wounded in combat or injured by enemy munitions – regardless of status or nationality. When she was killed, Lance Corporal Baker was escorting an injured comrade to medical assistance. It is extremely difficult to reconcile these facts with Ms Sumner-Burstyn’s charge that Lance Corporal Baker “had no moral compass”.
Ms Sumner-Burstyn’s final claim: “We are helping America invade another country for their oil” is similarly false. Afghanistan possesses no oil fields worth expending US blood and treasure to secure. The Americans are there for only one reason. Because the Taliban Government of Afghanistan had offered safe haven to Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaida: the terrorists ultimately responsible for the murderous attacks of 11 September 2001.

Lance Corporal Jacinda Baker
Natural reticence, not to mention fear of instant retaliation, would almost certainly have prevented Ms Sumner-Burstyn from uttering such false and hurtful accusations in front of people who did not share completely her opinions on the Afghanistan conflict. The classical injunction De mortuis nil nisi bonum – Of the dead speak only good – invokes a simpler world in which people confronted one another face-to-face. By placing a computer screen between herself and the family, friends and comrades of Lance Corporal Baker, Ms Sumner-Burstyn lost the inhibitive effect of close human proximity. Without its protection she had nothing to shield her from the full emotional and practical consequences of her actions.
These followed with terrifying speed and intensity. Ms Sumner-Burstyn’s comments appeared on her Facebook Page on Friday, by Saturday a new Facebook Page – Sumner Burstyn Give Back Your NZ Passport! – had attracted more than 15,000 followers. By Sunday that number had grown to 20,000.
Reading the comments posted on this new page, Dr Perry would no doubt suffer an embarrassment of evidential riches for his diminishing-empathy thesis. If Ms Sumner-Burstyn’s comments were ignorant and insensitive, the response was nothing short of homicidal. The reactive firestorm’s flames leaped across the Pacific Ocean to Canada – where Ms Sumner-Burstyn is working – and she hurriedly took down her Facebook Page and changed her e-mail address.
Too late. On the Internet everything is recoverable – including screen-shots of Ms Sumner-Burstyn’s original comments. By Sunday, family members had been driven from their homes by the public fury. Threatened with rape and murder, Ms Sumner-Burstyn fears to return to New Zealand.
A recent photograph of Ms Sumner-Burstyn shows a middle-aged woman posed in front of a large book-case filled with academic literature. Studying her face, and reading about her many awards for documentary film-making – many of them on “progressive” themes – it is difficult to fathom how Ms Sumner-Burstyn could be capable of such casual cruelty. As a clearly gifted artist and feminist, it is extraordinary that she was so utterly unable to empathise with Lance Corporal Baker – the first female member of the NZDF to lose her life on active service.
By the same token, it is profoundly depressing to read the spittle-flecked responses of her detractors.
Lance Corporal Baker lost her life on a mission to re-build and heal a damaged province in a ravaged land. Her empathy merited a much more generous memorial.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 28 August 2012.

Friday 24 August 2012

Ghosts That Walk In The Dark

Turbans and Kalashnikovs: The mental image most New Zealanders hold of the Taliban is of Taliban 1.0 - the religious student army that won the Afghan civil war back in 1996. But the new Taliban - Taliban 2.0 - is as likely to be kitted-out in business suits and carry lap-tops. According to Kiwi war correspondent, Jon Stephenson, Taliban 2.0 are "ghosts that walk in the dark" - guerrilla fighters against an army of occupation. And because the soil they walk on is their own, they will not be beaten.
WHEN WE HEAR the word “Taliban” most of us think of turbans and Kalashnikovs. In our mind’s eye we see an embittered Pashtun tribesman, his lungee as black as his bristling beard, squatting in the mouth of a mountain cave. Such fighters still exist, of course, but this mental picture much more closely resembles the Mujahedeen who drove out the occupying Soviet forces back in the 1980s. The word talib means, simply, a student of the Koran, and it was an army of such holy scholars – taliban – that ended the Afghan civil war in 1996. Think, Salvation Army – with machine-guns.
The first Taliban administration – let’s call it Taliban 1.0 – entered into the complexities of government with very little experience. Raised and educated in the deeply conservative religious schools (madrassas) of Pakistan’s tribal territories, many of its fighters were the sons of refugees who had fled the Soviets’ murderous attack helicopters. Hardly more than teenagers, the Taliban relied almost exclusively upon their religious teachers (mullahs) for political and legal guidance. Under the Taliban, Afghanistan became an Islamic Emirate, governed according to Sharia law.
That was the Taliban the West defeated in the aftermath of 9/11.

The insurgent force which has grown up in Afghanistan during the occupation of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) is, however, very different from the first Taliban army. Let’s call it Taliban 2.0.
The guerrillas of Taliban 2.0 are as likely to be dressed in a Western suit and carry a lap-top as they are to wear a turban or tote a Kalashnikov. They are highly skilled, highly motivated and highly dangerous. Like the French Resistance and the Viet-Cong, the new Taliban’s strategic and tactical objectives are brutally simple: wear down the occupiers’ will; sap his morale; undermine his faith in the “mission”; cause him to fear and mistrust the local population. In short, make him want to leave.
The New Zealand war correspondent, Jon Stephenson, based in Kabul, warns that this “fighting-season” the insurgency and its insurgents “are everywhere”. With typical bluntness, he says that were he to set out alone from the Afghan capital and drive for twenty-five minutes in any direction: “I’d be dead.” His description of Taliban 2.0 is chilling. They are, says Jon: “Ghosts that walk in the dark”.
And they’ve been walking our way.
Because the Hungarian Government’s rules of engagement do not permit its ISAF contingent to do any more than escort and protect its aid workers, a tactical window has opened in the south of Baghlan province. Unharried by regular forward patrols, the Taliban appears to have established a base of operations from which its fighters sally forth into neighbouring Bamiyan Province to attack the Afghan National Police and install deadly Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) along roadsides patrolled by ISAF troops from New Zealand. In less than a month, the Taliban have killed five Kiwi soldiers – three of them by means of a massive IED.
Their tactics have already borne fruit. According to a report in The New York Times: “New Zealand announced Monday that it would probably withdraw its small troop contingent from Afghanistan months ahead of schedule, aiming for early 2013 rather than October of that year.”
This is, of course, exactly what the Taliban wanted to hear. The more ISAF members who bring forward the date of their withdrawal, the less tenable the whole occupation becomes.
The Graveyard Of Empires: An American GI whistles nervously past the cemetery of previous occupiers' hopes.
As the Times report points out: “New Zealand now follows France, a much bigger coalition partner, which in January announced it was accelerating its troop withdrawal.”
Prime Minister John Key’s decision to move up New Zealand’s withdrawal date is a wise one. Had he attempted to “tough it out”, it’s highly probable the Taliban would have continued to seek out and kill New Zealand soldiers. The public announcement of this country’s early departure from Afghanistan is, however, almost certain to satisfy the Taliban’s strategic ambitions vis-a-vis New Zealand. Their tactical priority now will be to melt back into the population before ISAF Special Forces (including, most likely, members of the New Zealand SAS) locate and destroy the unit responsible for the latest deadly attacks.
This is the enemy against whom we have deployed our soldiers. He will not be beaten. Because, no matter how many Taliban are slain, the ‘ghosts that walk in the dark” walk upon their own soil. 

This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 24 August 2012.

Tuesday 21 August 2012

All Equal Under The African Sun

Sharpeville, South Africa, 21 March 1960: Sixty-nine black South Africans, protesting against Apartheid, were shot down by the white South African police. White rule could only be maintained and enforced by systematic and deadly state violence.

YOU CAN TELL it’s a hot day. The sky has that washed out quality and all the shadows are tucked in tight. The ground is dusty. Sunlight shimmers on the leaves of the trees. Judging by the distinctive styling of the parked cars, it’s more than sixty years ago. In the foreground of the photograph, sprawled awkwardly in the mid-day heat, you can count more than twenty bodies. All shot in the back while running away. Discarded shoes and hats and handbags fill the spaces between the men and women who fell. Blood is mixed with the dust in Sharpeville, South Africa, 21 March 1960.

It’s a famous photo – what the propagandists call a “recruiter”. I can’t have been more than twelve or thirteen when my eyes first consciously registered all those motionless bodies baking in the Transvaal heat, but even then I knew that such photographs are included in history books for a reason. Such images affront us; challenge us; dare us to do something about it.

And we did do something about it. In the years after 1960 more and more New Zealanders voiced their opposition to the Apartheid system of racial segregation and exploitation responsible for the Sharpeville Massacre. In 1981 we astonished the world with the vehemence of our protests against the touring South African rugby team. And when, at last, the saintly Nelson Mandela, leader of the African National Congress (ANC) was released from his Robben Island prison, and black South Africans won their freedom, we New Zealanders felt a special pride. The new, non-racial, Republic of South Africa seemed to us the very epitome of Good triumphing over Evil. Sharpeville was avenged.

But, we were deceived.

White South Africa’s racism – like racism everywhere – served a larger economic purpose. More than an exercise in racial segregation, Apartheid was an exercise in the management and exploitation of black South African labour. The ANC understood this. The Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA) understood this. The Confederation of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) understood this. The young Soweto activists who risked Apartheid’s billy-clubs, bullets and bombs understood this. And, most importantly, South Africa’s capitalists understood this.

Much as we would like to believe that it was the street protests of 1981 that tipped the balance against the Apartheid regime, it was, in fact, the international boycott of South African exports that prompted the leading White politicians and businessmen to contemplate abandoning the increasingly unsustainable moral and material infrastructure of Apartheid.

But, before they could act, they needed some iron-clad reassurances. The transfer of power from the old system to the new must be peaceful. The farms and businesses of the Afrikaner minority must not be seized. And, most importantly, there must be no wholesale nationalisation of South Africa’s key, export-earning, multinational mining operations. That these demands would require the ANC to repudiate most of its core economic and social objectives was well understood by the negotiators on both sides, and yet the ANC agreed. Why?

Here we have to step back a little and ask ourselves what else was going on in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

That the release of Mr Mandela coincided with the end of the Cold War was not accidental. While the world remained divided into two competing ideological blocs, both baring nuclear teeth, the radical socialisation of South Africa’s economy was a viable proposition. By the late 1980s, however, “actually existing socialism” was everywhere in retreat, and with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 the ANC’s economic and social programme became an instant anachronism. The global triumph of free-market economics left Mr Mandela with no option but to limit the ANC’s “revolution” to purely political objectives. South Africa’s 1996 Constitution guarantees all South Africans formal equality under the law, but the economic realities – which drove the White minority to erect the institutions of Apartheid in the first instance – remain in place.

The millions of black South Africans who queued for hours to cast their first democratic ballots in 1994 undoubtedly regarded the ANC as their liberator and guarantor of a free and more prosperous future. In reality, however, the ANC Government could only be the protector of the economic status-quo. The redistribution of wealth, which most black South Africans had assumed would follow the ending of Apartheid, did not materialise.

Rustenburg, South Africa, Thursday, 16 August 2012. In the dust and scrub outside the British-owned Lonmin platinum mine a terrible silence has fallen. Clouds of tear gas swirl and mingle with the acrid smoke from discharged pistols and automatic rifles. Between the lines of armed police and striking miners lie more than a hundred dead and wounded South African citizens.

Rustenburg, South Africa, 16 August 2012: Thirty-four striking black South African miners are shot and killed by black South African police outside the British-owned Lonmin Platinum Mine. 

All are equal under the African sun, but some, in George Orwell’s bitter formulation, remain “more equal than others”.

This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 21 August 2012.

Friday 17 August 2012

Unimpeachable Credentials

And So It Begins: Co-Leader of the Maori Party, Tariana Turia, is "red-eyed" by John Ansell as part of his "Colourblind New Zealand" campaign. Mr Ansell has pledged to affix his red eye-patches to all those who adhere to and/or promote the bi-cultural revisioning of New Zealand history. Mr Ansell insists that he is operating independently, but who stands to make best use of the formidable political weapon he is fashioning?

EVERY STUDENT EDITOR dreams of a scoop: a major story that nobody else (especially the “mainstream media”) knows anything about. And that’s exactly what “Treatygate” is – a scoop. Joe Stockman, Editor of the Otago University student magazine, Critic, and his News Editor, Callum Fredric, were first off the mark with a story that has potentially huge ramifications.

In Mr Fredric’s own words: “Critic has obtained documents from controversial race campaigner Louis Crimp, setting out a plan for a $2 million campaign aiming to make New Zealand a ‘colourblind’ (racially neutral) state.”

According to Critic, the man with the plan is John Ansell – mastermind of the National Party’s very-nearly-successful “Iwi/Kiwi” billboard campaign of 2005. If he manages to lay his hands on anything like $2 million, Mr Ansell’s proposed campaign to “expose the 40 year state brainwashing campaign that has distorted the history of Crown-Maori relations” could gain considerable political traction. Whatever you may think of him, Mr Ansell’s credentials as a propagandist are difficult to dispute.

The involvement of Mr Crimp is another matter. The elderly Invercargill millionaire’s only foray into national politics could hardly be described as an unqualified success. The media outlets through which Mr Ansell’s propaganda would, presumably, be communicated to the public might balk at associating themselves with such a controversial duo. There’s also the very real possibility that one, or all, of the Press Council, the Advertising Standards Authority, the Broadcasting Standards Authority and the Human Rights Commission might intervene to ban or modify messages intended to: “expose the bias [in favour of Maori] and enrage the public”.

Herein lies the difficulty confronting those who remain unconvinced by the bicultural orthodoxy of New Zealand’s political establishment. It has spent the best part of forty years surrounding itself with laws and conventions, tribunals and authorities, to the point where it is virtually unassailable from without. Messrs Ansell and Crimp are, therefore, very likely to discover that any full-scale frontal assault on its institutional walls is easily repelled.

The bicultural consensus is, however, acutely vulnerable to subversion from within. Thinking back over the past eight years, Mr Ansell should ask himself: “Why was my 2005 campaign so effective?” The simple answer is: Dr Don Brash. The mass racial animus that Mr Ansell is so skilful at arousing remains politically accessible – but only to a person bearing unimpeachable establishment credentials. Someone like the former Governor of the Reserve Bank. Someone like the Leader of the Opposition. Someone the opponents of biculturalism can credibly envisage moving into a position of power strong enough to bring the forty-year bicultural consensus crashing down.

Neither Mr Ansell, nor Mr Crimp, is that someone.

There is, however, something already in the political pipeline that just might provide the impetus for a politician bearing unimpeachable establishment credentials to avail himself, or herself, of Mr Ansell’s skills and Mr Crimp’s dollars. Something that could very easily be dubbed “Treatygate”. The report of the Constitutional Advisory Panel, due no later than September 2013, may prove to be a bicultural bridge too far for the Pakeha majority.

Set up at the insistence of the Maori Party following the 2011 General Election, the Constitutional Advisory Panel is dominated by individuals sympathetic to the bicultural cause. Their recommendations are, therefore, likely to be … challenging. Messrs Ansell and Crimp would probably describe them as a ticking time-bomb. But, if so, their casualties will not be found in the National Party.

Indeed, a cynic might say that the National Party could hardly have constructed a situation more certain to rebound to its advantage. Just think about it. A report no National, NZ First or Conservative Party voter will accept, but which no Labour, Green, Mana or Maori Party MP can reject. And who bears a more unimpeachable set of establishment credentials than the Prime Minister of New Zealand?

Get ready for another scoop, Critic. The story exposing National’s 2014 contract with “Treatygate Productions” and anonymous donations totalling two million dollars.

This essay was originally published in The Dominion Post, The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday 17 August 2012.

Tuesday 14 August 2012

Running On Different Lines

A Different Ethos: A page from the May 1938 issue of the New Zealand Railways Magazine. There are more ways to measure the value of an enterprise than simple profit and loss.

THE FLINTY-FACED MEN who run everything these days will call me a hopeless romantic, but I won’t care. They’ll point to the bottom line of the company’s accounts and shake their heads. “This is a business,” they’ll say, using that patient tone reserved for fools and children. “It must be run as a business.” But I won’t be convinced.

“Business”, no matter how hard its backers try to convince us otherwise, does not belong in the same ontological category as “Weather”. It’s not something we simply have to live with because, no matter how much we talk about it, or complain about it, we cannot change it. Businesses are the work of men and they are whatever men tell them to be. Bottom lines can be made to measure more than profit and loss.

The New Zealand Railways used to have 20,000 workers on its payroll. On the trains and railcars and electric units there were engineers, conductors and guards. In the stations and marshalling yards there were station-masters, schedulers, pointsmen, shunters and ticket-sellers seated in narrow booths. In the railway workshops hundreds of highly skilled tradesmen designed and built locomotives and rolling stock, refurbished carriages and undertook running repairs and maintenance. Up and down the thousands of miles of track gangs of railway workers checked the signalling gear, maintained the rails and ties and sleepers, noted signs of wear and tear and assessed the risk of washouts and slips. In between keeping the network safe, at ten and twelve and three o’clock, you’d see them hunched around a primus stove, boiling a billy, smoking a fag, chewing the fat. Working men, gainfully employed, bringing home a living wage to their wives and children.

How do you fit that picture into your bottom line, Mr Businessman?

How do you measure the value of kids growing up in working families where Dad and Mum pointed with pride to the great machines that the brains and hands of working people had made? What price do you put on the mastery of the complex tools, the lathes and presses, that produced the components that kept the machines running? Or the lifetime of productive work that their makers could look back on, and their sons and daughters aspire to? Where, on your bottom line, Mr Businessman, do you account for the vibrant neighbourhoods radiating out from the marshalling-yards and workshops at their heart? The shops and the supermarkets where people gathered and swapped gossip; the pubs and clubs where they argued about sport and politics? Are they not worth as much as the working-class neighbourhoods of China?

If you were honest, Mr Businessman, you’d tell me (sotto voce) that, really, it’s not THE bottom line that matters, but WHOSE.

The railways belonged to the people, but the road haulage companies belonged to their shareholders. Hardly surprising, then, that under the shareholders’ political party roads and lorries began to take precedence over rails and locomotives. When budgets were being drawn up it was to concrete and bitumen that the funds were allocated – not diesel oil, steel and hardwood sleepers. In other parts of the world the symbols of modernity were high-speed trains and light-rail public transportation networks, but here in New Zealand the future belonged to six-lane highways and 18-wheeler trucks.

Symbols Of Modernity: High-speed trains became emblems of progress and technological prowess in Japan, Western Europe and China - but not in New Zealand.

In 1986 the party that had pledged to “Save Rail” corporatized it. NZR became an SOE and from that moment on it was to be run as a business, with a business’s bottom line, and a business’s ruthlessly “downsized” workforce.

At the stroke of a pen, all the benefits that could not be accommodated in the accountant’s ledger ceased to matter. The benefit of having people gainfully employed and paying taxes instead of rotting on the dole. The benefit of working-class kids aspiring to be skilled tradespeople rather than patty-flippers at Macdonalds. The benefit of having socially coherent and flourishing neighbourhoods rather than decaying factories and weed-infested marshalling yards full of young people without jobs getting high on drugs where their fathers and mothers once earned a decent wage.

But that’s the way it was. New Zealand had joined the “Real World” of global markets and bloodless calculators. Railways were so … well … Nineteenth Century. Horny-handed sons of toil poring coal into puffing-billies. Away with them! Sell it to the highest bidder (and the friends of the highest bidder). Strip out the assets. Let the rest run down. Then (and this is the point where it’s really important to keep a straight face) sell it back to the people at a price that has nothing to do with the bottom line.

Still, we romantics are patient folk. As the Earth’s atmosphere heats up, and Peak Oil plays havoc with the truckers’ profits, those much-despised and long-neglected rails are beginning to hum.

This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 14 August 2012.

Friday 10 August 2012

Theatre Of The Absurd

Whose Hands? It's not what's happening out on the political stage that we should worry about, but who is directing this theatre of the absurd from behind the scenes.

“THE WORLD”, said Benjamin Disraeli, “is governed by very different personages from what is imagined by those who are not behind the scenes.” Just as well. Because the poor players currently strutting and fretting their hour upon New Zealand’s political stage clearly learned their craft in the Theatre of the Absurd. Incoherent and disconnected posturing may now be de rigueur, but even the most sophisticated audience grows weary of a play without a plot.

If the players and the play are mere distractions, however, and Mr Disraeli’s unseen personages, operating behind the scenes, do truly govern the world; then this theatrical, National-led government’s failure to develop either plot or character is of no real consequence.

In fact, to discover that there is nothing remotely resembling logic underpinning the Government’s public statements comes as a huge relief. Some of us were developing the most acute headaches trying to reconcile Education Minister, Hekia Parata’s, unwavering commitment to placing teachers of the highest possible quality, possessing all relevant qualifications, in every one of the nation’s public classrooms, with her Associate Education Minister, John Banks’, advocacy of privately run “Partnership Schools” staffed by unregistered teachers lacking even the rudiments of professional training. Now that we know the Government’s education policy is supposed to be absurd, incoherent and posturing, the pain grows less.

Behind the scenes, of course, the personages who really call the shots are gearing up for the incremental privatisation of New Zealand’s education system. Their logic is impeccable. First: Make it easy for middle class people, with money, to identify the public schools that are failing, so they can send their children somewhere else. Second: Set up “Partnership Schools” next to these failing schools and fill them up with the best and brightest children from the surrounding neighbourhoods. Third: Expand the network of “Independent” schools to take advantage of middle-class parents’ headlong flight from what they now regard as a fatally compromised public system.

Not only do the Personages get to clip the ticket all the way down the line, from the humblest early-childhood education centre to the flashest secondary school, but they also achieve their much larger purpose. The egalitarian and meritocratic public education system, built up over more than a century by the parties of the Left, can now be replaced with the sort of privately run, socially exclusive and unashamedly elitist system New Zealand’s deeply unequal society so obviously craves.

National Standards, League Tables, Partnership Schools, Public-Private Partnerships. It seemed to be nothing more than the politicians’ sound and fury. Now it all makes perfect sense.

The Afghanistan War’s sound and fury burst on to the stage last weekend in the most tragic fashion. And, once again, there was no sense to be made of the on-stage dialogue. The absurdity of the politicians was only matched by the opacity of the Army’s top brass.

In each of the nearly ten years New Zealand troops have been stationed in Afghanistan we have been told that their only purpose was to help the Afghan people to help themselves. In Bamiyan Province that involved Kiwis helping the local tribesmen to build schools and medical clinics. Our Provincial Reconstruction Team was lucky in its mission, we were told, because Bamiyan was one of the safest places in that unhappy country.

Why then are our soldiers dying? If, by our presence, we were supposed to make the country safer, why has it become more dangerous?

Now that our troops have become targets for Taliban forces supposedly reeling before the American “surge”. Now our “reconstruction team” is expected to confront an enemy capable of fighting highly-trained Kiwi infantry to a standstill. What purpose is served by remaining?

The Prime Minister and his Minister of Defence speak confidently about “restoring stability” to a country that grows more unstable by the day. But, like that other tragic military theatre of the absurd, the Western Front, no politician’s answer makes the slightest sense. Back then, the Diggers sang: “We’re here because we’re here, because we’re here, because we’re here.” The explanation for New Zealand’s presence in Afghanistan seems to boil down to: “We’re there because we’re there, because we’re there, because we’re there.”

“Oh, and to keep our American and Australian friends happy”, add Mr Disraeli’s  “very different personages’, in a loud stage whisper, from behind the scenes.

This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 10 August 2012.

Wednesday 8 August 2012

Meltdown: Labour's Caucus Rivalries Turn Toxic

Uneasy Seat: David Shearer is a poor communicator and David Cunliffe communicates very well (mostly because he has something to say). It's a surefire recipe for internal party tensions - which are now on display. But the "two very senior MPs" who've been telling toxic tales to TV3's Duncan Garner cannot change the fact that Mr Shearer's leadership has failed to inspire.

THAT DAVID CUNLIFFE’S ENEMIES waited until he was overseas before attacking him bears testimony to his growing political strength. For “two very senior [Labour] MPs” to brief against their caucus colleague to TV3’s Political Editor, Duncan Garner, the ABC (Anybody But Cunliffe) faction must be very worried indeed.

The cynical calculation that persuaded Mr Cunliffe’s enemies to unite behind Mr Shearer in December 2011 has delivered a very paltry harvest. The public was prepared to give Labour’s new boss a fair go at growing into a credible Opposition leader, but their patience isn’t endless. Above all other things, a political leader must be a communicator – and Mr Shearer isn’t. Not surprisingly, the major public opinion polls are all now registering declining levels of public support for both Mr Shearer and his party.

To gain some idea of just how poor a communicator Mr Shearer is, pay a visit to the NZ on Screen website and watch the 1973 interview of Labour Leader and Prime Minister, Norman Kirk, by the celebrated British broadcaster, David Frost. Not only does “Big Norm” speak in fully-formed sentences, unpunctuated by umms, errs and you-knows, but with the calm assurance and persuasive eloquence that only a person in absolute command of his facts, his thoughts, his convictions and, most importantly, himself, is able to project.

We are told that Mr Shearer’s minders have engaged the former broadcaster, Ian Fraser, to help their boss communicate more effectively. His chances of success must be rated as low. It is precisely because Mr Shearer is unsure of his facts, confused in his thinking and uncertain of his convictions that he finds it so difficult to remain in command of himself and, therefore, of what he says. It is significant that the most favourable reports of Mr Shearer’s communication skills have both come from social gatherings where little more than agreeable emoting was required (Backbenches and the EPMU Conference).

Mr Cunliffe is, of course, a highly accomplished communicator – especially on television. More important than his aptitude for speaking in coherent sentences, however, is his ability to persuade and even, on occasion, to inspire his listeners. The contrast between himself and his leader could hardly be starker (or more likely to enrage those rivals who suffer by comparison).

Mr Cunliffe’s growth as a politician is the product of his willingness to subject his ideas about what politics means in the Twenty-First Century to a searching and, above all, critical analysis. It has led him to question many of the economic and social assumptions which currently inform the Labour Caucus’s approach to policy formation. Almost alone among his colleagues, Mr Cunliffe has identified the Global Financial Crisis and its consequences as both the reason and the opportunity for Labour to make a decisive break with the prevailing neoliberal orthodoxy. He senses the hunger of Labour members, supporters and voters for a complete and radical review of the Party’s expectations of government: of what it hopes to achieve … and how.

Among those caucus colleagues unwilling to abandon Labour’s attachment to the conventional economic and social wisdom, this radicalism marks Mr Cunliffe out as “naïve and stupid”. To Labour’s rank-and-file, however, it marks him out as the man who should be leader.

If the polls continue to register the electorate’s dissatisfaction with the Shearer-led Labour Opposition, Mr Cunliffe’s enemies will do everything within their power to ensure that he is not elected as Mr Shearer’s replacement. They are terrified that the advent of Labour’s new Electoral College will encourage the party’s rank-and-file to not only assert their preference for a new leader, but also, availing themselves of the new procedures for selecting candidates, for a wholesale purge of the non-performers and time-servers who long ago ceased to advance Labour’s cause. It is to the cautious Grant Robertson that Mr Shearer’s erstwhile backers will turn, and the price of their support will be that the Opposition’s front-benchers (with the obvious exception of Mr Cunliffe and his allies) stay exactly where they are.

Mr Robertson would be most unwise to have any part in such a Faustian bargain. Labour must change or it will die. Not quickly and dramatically, but slowly and ignominiously, as the best among its ranks depart, and the worst cling on – for reasons of personal vanity, or from fear of a community they have given no reason to welcome them back – until, at last, the navigation lights of the good ship Labour are swallowed up in “the running straits of history”.

If Labour is to be saved, then its younger MPs must not resist but make common cause with Mr Cunliffe. This is the only alliance that holds out the slightest hope for a renewal of the party’s purpose and the rebirth of its fighting spirit. Mr Robertson and his friends have time on their side: they, unlike the political movement to which they have devoted their lives, can afford to wait.

The Labour Caucus has nothing to lose but Trevor Mallard.

It has an election to win.

Cunliffe and Robertson unite!

This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.

Tuesday 7 August 2012

Imperial Lessons

Water Rights: If Maori are able to remain united in their attempts to clarify the nature of any proprietary rights they may still enjoy over New Zealand's water resources, John Key's asset sales programme may yet fall victim to an indigenous strategy of "divide and rule".

DIVIDE ET IMPERA – “divide and rule” – was the central principle of Roman imperial government. Identify a conquered people’s long-standing social, economic and political fissures and drive your wedges home – as many as possible. Not for nothing did the British aristocracy set their sons to the systematic study of classical texts. Britain’s imperialists, like Rome’s, were masters at dividing and ruling. The easy British victories in the New Zealand Land Wars owe a huge debt to “the loyal Maoris” who were cajoled into taking Queen Victoria’s shilling.

New Zealand’s colonial elites came rather late to the art of dividing and ruling. Like their counterparts in Canada, the United States and Australia the assumption of the settler societies nurtured beneath Britannia’s imperial shield was that their troublesome “natives” would simply succumb to the Anglo-Saxon invaders’ genetic superiority (or, failing that, their guns and germs). In all but New Zealand’s case these genocidal expectations were largely (if not wholly) fulfilled. The “first peoples” of Britain’s non-tropical empire did indeed dwindle to politically insignificant percentages of the “White Dominions’” populations.

But not here. Successive settler governments’ efforts to “smooth the pillow of a dying race” notwithstanding, Maori numbers recovered and grew. Currently comprising between 10-15 percent of the population, New Zealand’s indigenous people constitute a significant and un-ignorable minority. Too few to win back their lost lands, but far too many to be simply shunted out of sight (and mind?) in the manner of the Canadian, American and Australian settler regimes. How to govern a settler state in which the indigenous population steadfastly refuses to fade into history has thus become one of the New Zealand political class’s most intractable problems.

The looming impasse over the partial sale of the four state-owned energy companies offers an excellent opportunity to see practically all of the New Zealand State’s Maori management mechanisms in play and to assess their effectiveness. Among the many institutions and groups involved are the NZ Maori Council, The Waitangi Tribunal, The Iwi Leaders Group and the Maori Party.

Each, in its own way, represents an attempt by Pakeha to either co-opt and/or pacify Maori resistance, or, by Maori, to exploit and/or challenge the post-colonial Pakeha Establishment. Ironically, the institution established to bring traditional Maori leaders into the Settler State’s tent (the Maori Council) and the quasi-judicial body set up to mollify the angry Maori masses (the Waitangi Tribunal) have become the primary vectors of indigenous resistance. By contrast, the Maori Party, launched to overturn the Foreshore & Seabed Act, which many Maori regarded as another raupatu (confiscation) has taken on the historical role of those “Loyal Maori” of the Land Wars.

Only the Iwi Leaders Group has yet to show its hand in this game of post-colonial poker. How it chooses to play its cards may yet determine whether the National-led Government’s controversial asset-sales programme proceeds smoothly, or becomes hopelessly, perhaps fatally, mired in legal challenges.

The Iwi Leaders Group, like the Maori Council before it, owes this position to the Pakeha Right’s rather belated attempt to copy the divide and rule tactics of the British imperialists from whom it inherited its economic dominance.

By enlisting the men and women of aristocratic lineage and/or great mana, the National Party hoped the Maori Council would off-set the political advantage its socialist rivals had acquired through their electoral alliance with the revitalist religious-political movement of Tahupotiki Wiremu Ratana.

In another historical irony, however, it was the Labour Party’s privatisation drive of the 1980s which gave rise to the judicially-inspired notion of a Treaty of Waitangi-mandated, Maori-Pakeha “partnership”. Seeking to mollify the growing anger of a new generation of Maori nationalists, Labour had extended the purview of the long-disregarded Treaty of Waitangi all the way back to the year of its signing in 1840. The subsequent “Treaty settlements”, negotiated by National Party ministers, saw hundreds of millions of dollars passing into the hands of tribal representatives. The elaboration of these significant capital transfers into powerful tribal corporations gave rise to a new Maori elite which the Right has attempted to fashion into a protective shield against the urgent social and economic claims of the growing Maori underclass.

The choice now confronting the Iwi Leaders Group is, therefore, a profound one. Either, it will facilitate the National Government’s partial asset sales programme by negotiating some form of tribally-based compensation, or, it will throw its weight behind the Waitangi Tribunal and the Maori Council. The latter course would align them in a politically significant way with the needs and aspirations of non-elite Maori: the beleaguered whanau and hapu who constitute the primary victims of National’s neoliberal policies.

Looking at the large number of Pakeha opposed to asset sales, Maori might then decide to practice a little “divide and rule” of their own.

This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 7 August 2012.

Friday 3 August 2012

What If The Boss Went On Strike?

Armageddon Outa Here! Confronted with the brute economic power of a recalcitrant business community, Dr Michael Cullen, Minister of Finance in the Labour-Alliance Government of 1999-2002 was forced to repudiate the radical implications of his infamous "We won. You lost. Eat that!" quip to the National Party Opposition.

THE IRREPRESSIBLE Martyn “Bomber” Bradbury, displaying an entrepreneurial spirit not generally associated with the Left, has persuaded some of New Zealand’s largest trade unions to back The Union Report, a half-hour television show about unions and unionism which he hosts every Monday evening on Auckland’s Triangle TV and, via web-casts, across the country. Occasionally, Bomber invites me to participate.

This week’s show featured James Ritchie, former head of the Dairy Workers Union, who’s just taken up a prestigious post with the International Foodworkers in Geneva. The discussion ranged over many matters, but the topic that provoked the liveliest discussion was how constrained both unions and union-friendly governments have become under the present, globalised, variant of capitalism.

With an extension of Paid Parental Leave (PPL) once again on the parliamentary agenda, we recalled the infamous “Winter of  [Employer] Discontent” that gripped the country in the first year of the Labour-Alliance Government of 1999-2002. The left-wing Alliance MP and Associate Minister of Labour, Laila Harré, was proposing an employer-funded PPL scheme, and New Zealand’s bosses were not happy. It seemed to them that Helen Clark had a socialist tiger by the tail and its claws were threatening their bottom lines. In debating the new Employment Relations Bill, hadn’t the new Finance Minister, Dr Michael Cullen, taunted his National foes with: “We won. You Lost. Eat That!”

The degree of employer disaffection could be read in the sudden and sustained fall in the value of the New Zealand dollar, which bottomed-out at an alarming US$0.32. As the opinion polls turned against the government, and business confidence plummeted, Dr Cullen warned that the Right’s propensity for “Armageddon economic analysis” could become self-fulfilling.

By late May 2000, with economic Armageddon getting closer – the Government caved. At a series of breakfast meetings, Dr Cullen set about reassuring business leaders that his government was not composed of sharp-clawed socialists: “We want to be a government that moves forward with business,” he told a Wanganui business audience, “not one that watches indifferently from the sidelines.” For good measure, the Prime Minister declared that employer-funded PPL would be enacted “over my dead body”.

It was a U-turn executed under duress. In early June, at the funeral of Jock Barnes, the militant leader of the watersiders in 1951, CTU President, Ross Wilson, quietly informed me that, only days before, the Prime Minister had warned him the country was facing an “investment strike”.

Shortly after Monday’s screening of The Union Report a viewer contacted me with a question. What would have happened, he asked, if Helen Clark had gone on television and told the country what the bosses were doing? If she had challenged the business community, both at home and abroad, to let New Zealand’s democratically elected government carry out its mandate, and called her supporters out into the streets. Would the Prime Minister have prevailed?

Possibly. But in doing so she would have raised the political stakes to a such a dangerous degree that 99.9 percent of politicians (even social-democratic ones) would simply have run the other way. To openly pit “the people” against “the bosses” is to place the option of full-scale revolution – or repression – on the table. Having done so, Ms Clark would very quickly have discovered that breaking an “investment strike” is in no way comparable to breaking an ordinary strike. In the latter case, only the future of a single company and its employees is on the line. With the former, you’re hazarding the future of an entire social class. Most political parties, even left-wing ones, would rather keep control of the losing side than lose control of the winning side.

Perhaps this explains why the Labour Party remains so reluctant to promise the opponents of partial privatisation that it will renationalise the assets if re-elected. Global markets take a dim view of such uncompromisingly anti-capitalist behaviour. The world would simply stop lending us money.

And even revolutions (some might say especially revolutions) need credit.

This essay was originally published in The Dominion Post, The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 3 August 2012.

Wednesday 1 August 2012

Labour Could "Just As Easily" Be National

Behind The Mask: When businessmen can no longer distinguish between National's and Labour's spokespeople, it's time for left-wing voters to start asking searching questions about the true beneficiaries of Labour's policies.

“IF YOU CLOSED YOUR EYES and just listened to Parker speaking – it could just as easily have been someone from National.” The business leader who said this of Labour’s finance spokesperson, David Parker, was being complimentary. And why not? The prospect of the two main political parties offering similar economic policies possesses charms to soothe the most savage capitalist breast. With nothing untoward to beset it, electorally, the business community can plan its future with confidence.

Labour supporters, however, have every reason to feel suspicious when businessmen heap praise upon the Opposition. The last time Labour pulled New Zealand capitalism’s irons out of the fire, the “Rogernomics” period of 1984-1993, still lies within the living memory of at least two-thirds of New Zealanders. Considerably less than half of them have cause to recall the economic disruption of those years with any fondness.

Much of the reason why Mr Parker’s speech to the “Mood of the Boardroom” breakfast in Auckland fell so mellifluously upon his wealthy listeners’ ears is attributable to Labour’s unwavering commitment to raising the age of eligibility for New Zealand Superannuation from 65 to 67. The opportunities which this policy opens up for the financial services industry (especially when combined with Labour’s pledge to make Kiwisaver compulsory) are considerable. Among the broader business community, however, Labour’s Superannuation stance represents an unstated promise not to pay for the pension by raising business and personal income taxes.

The one substantial tax measure Labour is promising, a Capital Gains Tax (CGT) enjoys strong support among certain sectors of the business community. The manufactured exports sector, for example, will welcome its ability to re-direct much needed investment away from the property speculation which has become New Zealand’s royal road to riches. Many other business leaders will welcome the CGT as a means of filling up the fiscal hole left by the 2010 tax-cuts.

For all those tax-payers born after 1966, however, Labour’s policies on NZ Superannuation, Kiwisaver and a CGT may well result in a reduction of living-standards.

As it stands, Labour’s plans to lift the age of eligibility for NZ Super will more-or-less exempt the so-called “Baby Boomers” from contributing to its “rescue”. Though described as a way of preserving “intergenerational equity”, and in spite of the Opposition’s increasing recourse to rhetorical Boomer-bashing, Labour’s carefully phased increase will still allow the Boomers to kick-back at 65. It is Generations X and Y who will have to work an extra two years for a purely inflation-adjusted and quite possibly means-tested pension.

A compulsory Kiwisaver Scheme, administered by the private sector, has the potential to not only reduce the actual take-home pay of already hard-pressed low-paid workers and their families, but to further strengthen the finance sector’s already unhealthy grip on the New Zealand economy. Were these savings to accumulate in a state-owned and run investment fund, then workers’ deductions could be classed as contributions to the social wage. Sadly, Labour will not countenance the creation of such a fund. (Too much like socialism, perhaps?) It may, however, allow employers to offset their increased contributions to the workforce’s Kiwisaver accounts against future wage rises.

Labour’s decision to exclude the family home from its proposed CGT, may yet lead to an even more rapid escalation in house prices. Rather than purchasing multiple properties in expectation of pocketing substantial tax-free capital gains, wealthy home-owners may instead decide to redirect their investment into the house (or houses) their family lives in. Labour could have avoided such behaviour by setting a family home valuation above which the CGT would apply. Instead, by opting to exempt them, it’s exposed both itself, and young people trying to buy their first home, to the perverse law of unintended consequences.

Why, then, does Labour persist with these business-friendly, Rich List-cossetting policies? Why not adopt fiscal measures more in keeping with its social-democratic principles? Throughout the 1950s, 60s and 70s, when the top bracket of personal income tax was frequently well in excess of 65 percent, New Zealand enjoyed the longest period of sustained economic growth in its history. The provision of social needs like old-age pensions, entry-level housing, ready access to health and education services and cheap utility prices were all predicated on citizens paying their fair share of tax.

Not any more. Rather than making the case for full employment and a just distribution of the nation’s wealth through a genuinely progressive system of taxation, Labour seems determined to base its economic programme on the fiscal status quo. Such a position cannot help but make it difficult to distinguish Labour’s finance spokesperson from National’s finance minister.

Poverty cannot be eliminated by cossetting wealth. Living standards cannot be lifted by reducing workers’ take-home pay. Homes cannot be made more affordable by offering tax-free rewards for making them more expensive.

Labour cannot serve labour by turning itself into National.

This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 31 July 2012.